Going Back to Hawaiian Roots
Local musician is about to release his fourth CD – all in Hawaiian
By Léo Azambuja
On an island blessed with talented musicians, one in particular stands out. Like the kupuna who pass on mo`olelo to the young, Lono too passes on Molokai history through his carefully crafted music.
His latest works have been compiled on a soon to be released album, Old Style IV. The CD, due near the end on the month, will be his ninth.
Lono goes beyond composing beautiful melodies and lyrics. His music is filled with Hawaiian cultural history which brings listeners back to a time when Hawaii was untouched by the Western world.
But Lono’s music didn’t always take this approach. In his youth, Lono had drifted away from the Hawaiian music he was raised on. For 20 years he played and composed songs inspired by popular Western idols.
This local musician’s story is as colorful as Hawaii’s own history.
Lono’s family used to live on a ranch on Molokai. The main house had a fireplace built with heiau rocks. “All the children born on that ranch died,” he said. Fearing the loss of another child, his mother flew to Oahu to give birth to Lono.
But Lono wasn’t always Lono. “When I was born my mom said ‘You’re my light.’” So Lono’s name was Kukui until he was four-years-old.
Lono’s grandma had a piano sitting in her yard, which was off-limits to the children. In 1961, Lono heard “Hit the road Jack,” from Ray Charles, on the radio for the first time. Ignoring his grandma’s rules, the four-year-old Kukui sat at the piano and played Ray Charles newest hit. His grandma saw him, but instead of being upset, she realized the boy had a future. She changed his name to Lono, and made sure he learned about Hawaiian culture.
By the time Lono enrolled in High School, he was already overwhelmed with Hawaiian learning. “I had enough,” he said. “I wanted to play other stuff, like Cat Stevens and Elton John.”
Growing up Hawaiian, Lono enjoyed mauka and makai. “Whenever I was tired of being a cowboy on the ranch, I would go to my tutu lady’s house in Makaha,” he said. On Oahu’s famous west side beach, Lono surfed as much as he could.
Back in the 1970s, when Lono was still a teenager, the Kamakawiwo`ole`ole family moved to Makaha. “They were huge,” he said. Lono and his friends had to go past the Kamakawiwo`ole hale to get to the beach. They would always run past the house, scared of the “big guys.”
“One day I was coming home from the beach and pops was sitting down on the porch,” Lono said. “I was about to run by, and he yelled up to me, ‘Hey boy, come eat.’” Realizing there was nothing to fear, Lono decided to go. He said a huge pot sat on top of the stove, covering all four burners. “I went to see what was in the pot,” Lono said. Still laughing from what happened over 30 years ago, Lono said, “It was just rice.”
Lono ended up bonding with the Kamakawiwo`ole family. Whenever he was in Makaha he found himself hanging out with them, even going to church together. He and Skippy became good friends. Izrael was still a young boy.
Back on Molokai, Lono started high school, but missed playing football. Molokai High School had no football program then. So Lono ended up leaving Molokai again, joining Waianae High School, where he could play. There he bonded with Raymond Naki, and the two became good friends.
Throughout his High School days Lono kept playing music. His brother Vernon’s wife was a fan of Beatles and Elton John, and had a lot of LPs. “I used to chase down the Beatles all the time,” he said. “I was trying to get away from Hawaiian music; I was tired of Hawaiian music.”
“In the eighties I played a lot of country music,” Lono said. “I was living in San Francisco. My band did really good, played a lot of Led Zepellin, Rush, and Judas Priest. All kids go through that in the mainland, everybody plays stairway to heaven at least once.”
Back in Hawaii, Lono settled on Maui. He said his first five CDs show his love for Maui. But the island has changed since then. “All those songs I wrote was about what Maui used to be like.”
Lono said that while promoting his fifth CD, on Kauai, he realized that Kihei, on Maui, had been forever changed. Someone had told him he was writing songs about a town that no longer represented the Hawaiian lifestyle.
“Kihei is a disaster,” Lono said. “It’s what happens when politicians and developers get into the same bed.” He said the few Hawaiians left on Kihei cannot practice their culture; they cannot fish, go deer hunting, or pick opihi. There are no taro patches there anymore, he said.
“After all these years my brother told me to play Hawaiian music,” Lono said. And that’s exactly what Lono did. “I started to fall in love with the songs again,” he said. “The songs started to fall in love with me.”
People were instantly drawn to his music. They would tell him that the songs were the most beautiful they had ever heard. He decided to learn a few more songs, along with their meanings and translations. Lono knew some Hawaiian language, but not enough, according to him. “I wish I learned all this stuff about Hawaii while I was in school.”
“What you learned at home and what you learned at school was different,” Lono said. At school he said teachers would tell him Hawaiians were savages, fat and lazy. “But you go home and you find yourself working all the time,” he said. “You’re well disciplined at home, and you love God. It’s like the school is forcing us into oppression.”
Lono’s new CD is entirely about Molokai. Each song represents a little about Molokai’s history, which Lono studies from books and from conversations with kupuna.
“Molokai is the center of all the islands,” Lono said. “It’s like the umbilical chord of Hawaiian culture and tradition is right here on Molokai.”
Lono also plays every instrument on the CD. The recording was made at an improvised studio in Kawela, which he named Sunshine Studios. After the production finishes, the studio will be dismantled.
Already in the final stages, the CD is highly anticipated. Halau are already dancing to some of the songs. Lono has played music from the upcoming CD at Hotel Molokai, and at a “Buy the Ranch” meeting at Kulana `Oiwi halau. Last month Lono played at the Max Center on Maui, debuting some of the new music. The same concert featured George Kahanamoku, Kamaka Fernandez, Kevin Brown and Molokai’s Raiatea Helm.
Lono’s music takes time to come to life. Each CD averages at least six months of cultural research. A lot of his findings come from books available at the Molokai Public Library. Lono said he takes another three months to record the CD, and four months to finish it. He usually takes a month break, to start it all over again.
The wait might seem long, but it’s worth it. “You can only get this CD on Molokai,” Lono said. And they’re also printed in limited runs – once they sell out, they won’t be reprinted. Luckily, Molokai residents will have first dibs on this highly anticipated CD.